Australian peacekeepers in Sinai with UNEF II from 1973 to 1979
Established in 1973 following the Yom Kippur War, the Second United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF II) was created to supervise the ceasefire between Egypt and Israel and observe a return of their forces to the positions they had held before the conflict. Australian United Nations (UN) peacekeepers already working in the region were among those initially seconded to the mission. In 1976, the Australian Government officially committed forces to UNEF II, along with 4 Iroquois helicopters.
UNEF II operated until the mission's mandate expired in 1979. We recognise and remember the 280 Australians who served as peacekeepers in the Sinai.
A region in dispute
Since it was proclaimed a state on 14 May 1948, Israel has often been in conflict with the surrounding Arab states. Palestinian Arabs and surrounding Arab states rejected the plan for a Jewish state and fought for control of the land. Major conflicts include:
- the First Arab-Israeli War in 1947
- the Suez Crisis of 1956 (the Second Arab-Israeli War)
- the Six-Day War of 1967 (the Third Arab-Israeli War)
- the Yom Kippur War of 1973 (the Fourth Arab-Israeli war).
UN peacekeepers have had a presence in the region for most of this time. By the 1970s, Australians had spent almost 2 decades serving in several UN peacekeeping operations in the region.
The Yom Kippur War
On 6 October 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack against Israel. On the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, they crossed their respective ceasefire lines in the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon also joined the fighting. Egyptian and Syrian forces had early successes in the war, but then met strong Israeli resistance.
The Second United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF II)
The UN called for a ceasefire on 23 October, but fighting continued. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt requested Soviet Union and US troops be sent to the area to enforce the ceasefire. The US opposed the request. At the request of Egypt, the UN Security Council was convened again on 24 October. The Second United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF II) was created. The first United Nations Emergency Force served as a buffer between Egyptian and Israeli forces from November 1956 to June 1967.
The new peacekeeping operation, UNEF II, effectively brought the latest crisis to an end.
UNEF II's role was to supervise the implementation of the ceasefire between Egyptian and Israeli forces. It also oversaw the return of the 2 forces to the positions they had held before the conflict and tried to prevent a recurrence of fighting.
UNEF II was responsible for controlling the buffer zones established by the ceasefire agreements. These were east of the Suez Canal and in the Sinai Peninsula. The force was armed for self-defence.
UNEF II headquarters were eventually set up in Ismailia, Egypt.
Australia's unofficial involvement in UNEF II
Australia was unofficially a part of UNEF II from the beginning. Two Australians were among a select group of United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) military observers seconded to the mission. They were:
- Lieutenant Colonel Keith Howard, the senior Australian in UNTSO, who had been serving there since 1967; he would later return to UNTSO and become UNTSO's acting commander in 1975.
- Major Allan Windsor, a 41-year-old Citizen Military Forces artillery officer who had already served for 2 years in UNTSO.
Howard served for a brief period as chief personnel and logistics officer before returning to UNTSO. Working in a remote location in areas in which he had little experience, Howard later recalled this period as a 'nightmare'.
There were early teething problems. Aircraft flew in thousands of personnel, who arrived at all hours of the night, despite transport and accommodation not being in place. Initial arrangements were inadequate, and the accommodation was full of bedbugs. At a second site, troops had to camp at a racecourse. Howard gave them money to buy their own provisions locally. Eventually, Canadian and Polish logistic units arrived and relieved Howard and his team of the task.
Windsor stayed on for longer, first as operations officer, then as an UNTSO liaison officer attached to UNEF headquarters.
AUSTAIR: Australia commits forces to UNEF II
In 1976, the Australian Government officially committed forces to UNEF II. The contingent consisted of 2 army personnel serving in the UNEF II headquarters for a 12-month period and a 50-person detachment from No. 5 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). They also committed 4 Bell UH-1H Iroquois helicopters for 6-month rotations. Included in the RAAF contingents during 1977 and 1980 were Royal Australian Navy aircrew and aircraft maintainers. The contingent was known as AUSTAIR UNEF.
The first of the contingent arrived in Ismailia on 5 July 1976.
The peacekeepers faced many problems when they first arrived. Their hangars and offices weren't ready, and they were short on space for accommodation. The Sinai Palace Hotel didn't have a usable kitchen, and it had recurrent power and water supply issues. As well as fixing these issues, the Australians set up 2 bars for socialising – one for officers and the other for NCOs and airmen. By the end of the first month, the hotel was generally considered habitable.
Monitoring the buffer zone
UNEF II had not had helicopters before, making the new operation initially a challenge. The Australian contingent soon settled into a routine of operations. They provided support to the Swedish, Ghanaian and Indonesian battalions that occupied the buffer zone. They also supported the Finnish battalion that monitored the 'M' line, which ran south from the southern end of the buffer zone. AUSTAIR provided each battalion with 2 aerial patrols a week, helping observers check for incursions.
AUSTAIR also ferried VIPs around the area of operations. And they performed other special tasks requiring helicopter support, including:
- positioning a 350 kg antenna on top of a 15 m mast for a Canadian signals unit
- moving a 300 kg metal observation tower across the buffer zone for the Swedes
- recovering a jeep stuck in sand and surrounded by mines.
[Insert image, alt text = "A white UN vehicle sits is stuck in sand halfway up the front tyre. The driver looks out the window, his chin resting on his hand."<caption> A UN vehicle is bogged on a sealed road in the Sinai while trying to leave Egypt. 1977. Photograph by Hedley Robert Thomas. AWM number.</caption>]
Challenging conditions in Ismailia affect morale
The contingent found the constant noise difficult. There were car and truck horns, loudspeakers calling people to prayer, and a guard on a nearby bridge who liked to shoot dogs at night. It affected morale. Battling natural conditions like sandstorms was also challenging. One morning the contingent woke to their accommodation 'resembling a 1000-year-old Egyptian tomb'. Talc-like sand covered everything. Afterwards, ground crew suffered ‘physical pain' towing a helicopter into a hangar.
The contingent's commander saw the contingent through many trials. Wing Commander Hedley Thomas was a 36-year-old fighter pilot and helicopter pilot who had served with distinction in No. 9 Squadron in the Vietnam War. In Egypt, he was credited with helping to relieve some of the contingent's difficulties. The unit diary commented:
It was the common thought of all that if it hadn't been for WGCDR Thomas' cool and calm direction through great tensions and difficulties, this Unit would not have survived to reach the state of organization it now enjoys.
[Londey, Peter; Crawley, Rhys; Horner, David (2020). The Long Search for Peace: Volume 1, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations.]
Thomas was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his service as commanding officer of the Australian contingent.
A new peace treaty
By early 1979, tension between Israel and Egypt was easing. In the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the 1979 Treaty of Peace Between Egypt and Israel, the nations agreed that the Sinai would go back to Egypt. In return, Egypt would end hostilities and normalise relations with Israel.
By May 1979, AUSTAIR crews were seeing the first stages of the Israeli withdrawal. A new buffer zone was established along the eastern strip of Egyptian territory. This changed the need for UNEF II peacekeepers in the region.
Withdrawal from the Sinai
With the easing of tensions, coupled with other UN operations still active in the region, UNEF II's mandate wasn't extended beyond 24 July 1979.
AUSTAIR, now commanded by Wing Commander Carl Ring, ceased operational flights 2 days later. The contingent stayed on for another 3 months to help transport UNTSO observers. They also supported other units of UNEF II preparing to withdraw.
During this time, an AUSTAIR medical evacuation saved the life of a Russian UNTSO observer who was critically injured in a car accident at Abu Rudeis.
AUSTAIR flew its last sorties on 8 October 1979, and from 14 October began repatriating personnel and equipment.
A RAAF nurse, Squadron Leader Rita Blackstock, a veteran of the Vietnam War, served with UNEF II. As Blackstock was returning to Australia from Ismailia in 1979, she was redirected to Tehran to help with the evacuation of Australian citizens there.
The last flight left Ismailia on 20 October 1979. Major Tony McGee, the staff officer at UNEF headquarters, was formally attached to UNTSO. He stayed on in Ismailia into the following year to wind down UNEF II.
Londey, Peter; Crawley, Rhys; Horner, David. The Long Search for Peace: Volume 1, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations. Vol 1 Part 2 - 20 Desert sortie (UNEF II, Egypt, Syria, Israel, 1976-79). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
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